Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Mar 2008

Top 10 Free Agent Gambles

With the initial free agency period cooling off, it is a good time to take stock. ESPN's John Clayton looks at the free agent landscape and sees a lot of risky signings as more and more teams embrace the 3-4. Can Shaun Rogers and Kris Jenkins be effective as nose tackles? Can Justin Smith hold up as a defensive end in the scheme? Are Calvin Pace, Travis Laboy and Antwan Odom truly pass rushing linebackers?

Posted by: Sean McCormick on 12 Mar 2008

11 comments, Last at 15 Mar 2008, 11:55pm by James Christensen

Comments

1
by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 03/12/2008 - 4:28pm

It's refreshing to see so much press (and for that matter, so much free agent action) on the trenches. So many of these "big moves" and "big gambles" concern linemen.

I don't know how smart the Jets are for banking so much money on Woody at a position he's barely played. Many players look good when they change positions initially, becasue opposing teams take a little while to adapt. I especially would worry if I was a Jets fan because RT requires a lighter, quicker kind of skillset, and Woody's knock his whole career has been issues with keeping his weight down...

2
by Charger Jeff (not verified) :: Wed, 03/12/2008 - 4:55pm

Funny that you linked to Clayton's story, but nobody has thus far bothered to link to the FO on ESPN story, especially considering the Hole in Zone reference ...

3
by Joseph (not verified) :: Wed, 03/12/2008 - 5:17pm

Re: #2
As a Saints fan, I second the need for the link.
NOTE TO COMMENT MONITOR: Feel free to transfer this comment regarding the linked article in #2 to its thread when you link to it.

Regarding the Saints fixing their D, on the Saints comment board on nola.com, many fans feel the signing of McCray is to employ a "Four Aces" package a la the Giants. Didn't they just win the SB with a great pass rush and average CB's? Also the run D was so good because teams passed the ball against our horrible secondary. After Fujita, our LB's were replacement level at best. If either Vilma or Morgan plays at their previous level, this will better the D overall.
As stated in the article, Asante Samuel was the first CB target, and R. Gay was plan B. Some fans are clamoring for a trade for Lito Sheppard, but the stats show that he won't be a great improvement. The other prob. in our secondary is that the safeties are not good enough to play cover 2, which would prob. be better for our CB's. (J. David couldn't be any worse, right?)
Bottom line is:
1. We resigned 8 of our UFA's, tops in the NFL.
2. With our O, D doesn't need to be great--just average, which it wasn't last year.
3. Deuce is important for the running game. Losing him for the year in the 3rd game ruined the season.
4. Hopefully the coaches will allow Pierre Thomas & Aaron Stecker to carry some of the load, as both showed in short stretches last year that they could take on say, 5 carries a game (vs. only special teams).
5. The Saints have the 10th overall pick. It will be spent on a defender. One school of (fan) thought is to jump over Cincinnati to #8 and select either Dorsey or Ellis. Another is taking the LB Rivers from USC. A third is dropping back a few spots and selecting a CB--although the obvious is that someone must want to jump up to that 10th spot.
6. Easier sched--we don't play the AFC South, plus have a 3rd place sched., should help us jump to 9-7 or better--prob. enough to get in the playoffs.

4
by Sam B (not verified) :: Wed, 03/12/2008 - 6:56pm

That was a fairly interesting article, but it would have been nice for Clayton to have included some more thoughts about whether these gambles will succeed.

I thought his overall point, that FA is pretty risky, was a good one, but his introductory statistics about snaps and $$$ were pretty fishy, and he went too far at times with his point:

"Shanahan has to gamble on free agency to fix his defense."

Gamble or sure thing, its worth remembering that in general free agency deals contain significantly less gamble than the draft.

5
by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 03/12/2008 - 8:22pm

Sam B,

I disagree that FA deals are less risky than the draft, at least, for most of the draft.

It's true that you generally have more data on how a FA will perform at the NFL level than you do on a drafted rookie. However, excepting very high draft choices, you also have to commit far more financial resources (and, by extension, roster-spot resources) to win a FA than you do a draft pick. It's the cost of the extra knowledge, but the way FA works (players going, usually, to the highest bidder) almost guarantees that the highest bidder is OVERPAYING for the knowledge of that security.

For example, imagine you need a guard. There's a solid FA guard on the market, and, looking at the draft class, you're pretty sure there will be guard prospect you like on the board in the second or third round.

Because you know his history of play, you know that the FA has a higher probability of playing at the level you require than the rookie. However, EVERY team looking for a guard knows this. Some teams will peg his value just right, while some will over-value him and other will under-value him. The player gets to choose who he goes to, and consequently he will probably choose the team that over-values him. He will take the contract that not only involves the most money, but also that gives him the most job security (i.e. that makes him hardest to cut).

On the other hand, if you go for the drafted rookie, then there is no issue of over- or under-valuing. You pay a constant value for the player, and the player has to take it. Furthermore, because of the way non-top ten rookie contracts work, you can cut him at any time with very few reprecussions.

So you can choose between a (relatively) known quantity that you have to overpay to get, and are stuck with for a big committment once you do get, or an unknown quantity that you have to pay relatively little to get and can dump if it doesn't work out. Seems that the FA is a much bigger risk than (most of) the draft.

6
by Jesus (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 10:02am

Dang! Who was the last guy to make a pro bowl at age 36, or 35 ... ? Besides a kicker?

7
by Parker W. (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 3:08pm

Running with what MJK was talking about. He was alluding to the "Winner's Curse."

In NFL Free Agency, this phenomena is even more likely (the negative results for the winner that is); and he explained it well.

The reason it is even more likely that the "winner" will realize adverse effects from winning is that the value of free agents is largely known. Every team has access to film, etc. (There is some truth that this isn't consistent across the board. For instance, if a player played in a team's division they are likely to have more knowledge of the player than say a team from the other conference). But, largely, the understanding of the player's abilities is known.

Because of this, the "average" bid will most represent the player's true value as teams are willing to pay what is appropriate given the player's talents. Thus the team with the highest bid is necessarily overpaying as they are paying more for the player than their market value and more than the player's abilities are actually worth.

The best argument against this point is that players have different values for different teams due to schemes, etc. (Suggs would not be franchise-tag worthy for some teams). However, I would say that with 32 teams, enough teams have similar schemes that this is unlikely to have a huge effect.

Personnel is highly different from 4-3 to 3-4, but nearly a third of the league uses the 3-4 to a high degree. Consider the possibility that a 3-4 outside 'backer is hitting the market. Only 10 teams employ this type of player. Six don't have the need and/or resources for the player. It is extremely unlikely that 3 teams will underbid the player's worth while one bid's perfectly and pays the player's true value.

8
by Cyrus (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 4:56pm

I think he was "quick and dirty" with the article. Quickly cited facts and figures, lots of opinion, no real backbone of data to draw from.

I would have preferred it if he had used MORE opinion, actually going out on a limb and saying what he expected from each (whether the gambles will work out or not)...

The only part that I took offense to was saying "Lamont Jordan did not work out, Chester Taylor did..."

Well, duh! Lamont played for OAKLAND. His first season, even with the dysfunction, he broke 1000 yards rushing and 500 receiving and got 11 TD's.

Then the team fell apart, especially the offensive line, and I don't care if they had LT2 in there, he wouldn't be that much better.

Chester Taylor went to a team with a solid O-line and has performed well. I want him to do well, but I am worried Turner will have a similar problem with the O-line as Jordan had.

9
by mm (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 2:01am

Dang! Who was the last guy to make a pro bowl at age 36, or 35 … ? Besides a kicker?

Favre was selected this year at 38, though he didn't play because of 'injury'. Wonder if he would change that now if he knew he would retire?

10
by Paul (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 6:56pm

#5:

Actually, the winner's curse is just as active in the draft, since the team that values a given prospect most highly is going to draft him first. However, the cost of the curse in this case is a lot less, except perhaps at the very top of the draft, than it is in your typical FA bidding.

11
by James Christensen (not verified) :: Sat, 03/15/2008 - 11:55pm

Speaking of gambles... how about the reported PacMan to the patriots angle? Link has more details.